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15 February 2023

LGBT History Month: Finally seeing how it could have been

Last year I shared my ‘coming out’ story, and how a law known as ‘Section 28’ had an impact on my life – without knowing it.

The law’s repeal in 2003 has been marked each year with – an event that brings together LGBT young people and champions the power of education in gender and identity.

In my story, I tried to be honest, to share how the experience made an impact in my life, because I know my story isn’t unique. Even today, reading it back it still makes me feel uncomfortable, and that’s not something that’s easy to explain.

Not because of the experience – but how far we’ve come since it happened. And how much I wish I could go back and do it again… but in 2023.

I couldn’t have felt any more certain about this than watching Netflix’s Heartstopper, released last year.

The series follows high school pupil Charlie (Joe Locke), who develops a crush on his rugby playing classmate Nick (Kit Connor). It shows the pair navigating the early stages of romance as young LGBTQ+ teens, all in the backdrop of school life, friends and family.

Having written the School’s Out piece just a few months earlier, Heartstopper had a profound impact on me.

I found myself getting emotional less than a minute into the trailer – watching the show, I was a mess by episode two.

If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know, the experience that the characters have within school and with family and friends isn’t likely a complete reflection of real life, but for many, myself included, it offers a glimpse into a world that could have been… should have been.

Around the time I came out, I saw a trailer for a movie that showed two young people falling in love. It focused on secrecy. The film was called Get Real.

I mention this because the narrative is almost exactly the same – young gay people, one falling in love with the high school athlete, struggling to come out to family, and facing bullying and prejudice. It was dramatic, sensationalist, and completely and utterly how I felt at the time.

Trying to explain to anyone how it was as a young LGBTQ+ person in school during Section 28 is tough, but comparing Get Real and Heartstopper, I don’t think there’s a better way to show how far we’ve come, and how it was back then.

Whilst the stories are similar, and the plots are almost identical, the difference is in every character within them.

From friends and family, to the teachers and other school pupils – the situation, and the result couldn’t be any more different.

Even from the trailer, it’s easy to understand why so many LGBTQ+ fans have been moved by Heartstopper, and how the cast has been given so much praise. And while very much deserved, credit has to go to Alice Oseman, writer and illustrator of the books that inspired the series.

The world that Alice created is the world I wanted to live in when I was 14. I just didn’t realise it until now.

In the same way that I didn’t know at the time what influenced the people and situation around my experience of coming out at school, I didn’t know until last April what I would want to replace that with. I do now.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this, and I know that I am who I am because of those experiences, but it was beautifully empowering to realise that Heartstopper is closer to the experience of today’s young LGBTQ+ people, than it was for me or the characters in Get Real.

The differences between these two stories is the true victory of the abolition of Section 28, and how the message of LGBT History Month continues to drive change to this day.

Ross Tilley, Commercial Digital Editor, IJͼ Northern Ireland